Hayden Lee threw the ball down the field. Then all he could do was hope.
“I saw nothing – I’m too short, and I can’t see over the line,” he admitted.
Luke Bendickson, the intended target of Lee’s pass, could only wait.
“I saw there were two green shirts in front of me, so when Hayden threw it, I thought, ‘If it doesn’t get to me, we’re toast – they’re going the other way with an interception,’” Bendickson said. “But it was perfect.”
And Braham football coach Shawn Kuhnke, who made the call to throw the ball, could only watch.
“It was one of those, ‘Please, please, please, please, please – YES!’ moments,” Kuhnke said. “Everything was great on that play: The offensive line blocking was great, the route was great, the throw was great. It wasn’t just the pass or the catch; it took 11 guys doing their job to make it work.”
And the play worked to perfection, as Lee’s pass to Bendickson resulted in a 44-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that helped the Bombers claim a 24-21 victory at Pine City on Thursday, Aug. 29, in the season opener for both schools.
It was a gutsy call by Kuhnke on a fourth-and-6 play with a little over two minutes left on the clock that gave Braham a 10-point lead with too little time for the Dragons to come back. Kuhnke said part of the decision to go for it came down to field position.
“We had the ball on the 35, and even if we had punted, if the ball went into the end zone we would only gain 15 yards of field position,” he explained. “But part of it was that the guys wanted to go for it.”
Then came the decision to go for a pass – one of just five throws the Bombers attempted all night.
“We saw them starting to creep closer to the line of scrimmage,” Kuhnke said. “The running game had been very effective all night long, because our offensive line had done a great job. When we talked about it, our guys said we could get over the top of them – and they were right.”
The combination of going for the fourth down, along with throwing the ball, was a combination the Dragons could not overcome.
“I think it took them off guard, because I think they were sure we were going to run it,” Bendickson said. “There was an advantage to that.”
It was a thrilling finish to a contest that did not start well for Braham, as Pine City took the opening kickoff and scored a touchdown within the game’s first five minutes. Then on the ensuing kickoff the Dragons banged the kick off a Braham blocker, and Pine City recovered the ball at midfield.
“They drove it down our throats, and then there was nothing you could done about that kickoff,” Kuhnke said. “We could have folded, but our defense made a stop to put the ball in the hands of our offense, and then we made some things happen.”
The defense forced a three-and-out and a punt, and after the two teams exchanged two more punts the Bombers got their offense rolling. Late in the first quarter Lee took a quarterback draw 68 yards for a touchdown, and on its next possession Braham used a 42-yard run by Bendickson on a fourth-and-two reverse to set up a 4-yard TD run by the senior running back with 5:24 left before halftime.
The Bombers finished with 265 yards rushing on 40 attempts, as Bendickson rumbled for 169 yards while Lee added 95. That was especially impressive since Braham was without senior offensive lineman Michael Tinkens-Rogstad for most of the game because of an injury.
“You have to have guys willing to step up and step in and play their role,” Kuhnke said. “Jonah Johnson did a great job of filling in for Michael Tilkens-Rogstad, and hopefully we can get Michael healthy soon.”
Pine City got its running game going in the second half, getting a 2-yard touchdown run to move to within 2 points with 10:22 left in the game.
But the Bombers defense forced a fumble on the Dragons’ next possession, then made a stop on a fourth-down play to claim the ball on the Pine City 37 with 3:19 still to play.
“Bend but don’t break,” Kuhnke said. “We just needed to find a way to make a stop, and we did.”
Bendickson appeared to score on a 28-yard run soon after that, but the play was called back because of a penalty. Eventually Braham was forced into its fourth-down hole, setting the stage for Lee and Bendickson’s dramatic hookup.
Pine City did get a touchdown with 36.7 seconds left, but the Dragons’ on-side kick was recovered by Johnson to allow the Bombers to open with a win that Bendickson said was “all heart.”
“When you have your back against the wall, you have to dig deep,” he said. “You have to have all 11 guys pushing hard, grinding. We came out on top, and that’s all we can ask for.”
Best of all – from Kuhnke’s standpoint – was that the win was not flawless for his team, giving him plenty of lessons to deliver on the practice field this week as the Bombers prepare to host Chisholm in the home opener Friday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m.
“That’s the best,” Kuhnke said. “As a coach, I’ve been waiting for this game since last November. So you have those jitters, so you want things to go well so you can win. But the best kind of win is the one where you make some mistakes, because we can go back to practice and work on some things to get better.”